Man Booker Prize

Book Review of Autumn by Ali Smith

autumnAli Smith’s Autumn is a lyrical novel, but also a puzzling one.

Part of her Seasonal series (followed by the now released Winter), each of the novels is touted to deal with “time and how we experience it”.  This explains the non-linear narrative utilised in this novel.

The central focus here is the relationship between Elisabeth, a young girl (and at other times in the text, a young woman) and her neighbour, an elderly man called Daniel Gluck. Gluck is an exceptional kind of man – one who encourages Elisabeth to see the world in new ways. It is the central relationship of Elisabeth’s life – one that shapes her career and her future relationships.

Threaded through it all is ponderings on feminism, literature, art and Brexit – and how it could be signifying a shift to a more xenophobic world. Things no doubt high on Smith’s list of priorities and concerns in the world around her today.  It jumps around a lot – and we fins out more about Elisabeth than we do Daniel, who remains a somewhat mysterious figure.

I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it was intriguing and thought-provoking.  Much like her beautiful writing, Autumn takes things that appear mundane, and lifts them to a whole other level.


Book Review of Exit West

UnknownThis is another Man Booker nominee, a slim kind of a volume with plenty to say within its pages.  Mohsin Hamid comments of love, refugees and out culture of fearing the outsider in Exit West.

Nadia and Saeed meet in a country on the brink of disaster.  Although the name of this place is never revealed, it appears to be somewhere in the Middle East.  He is traditionally and she – despite her traditional outerwear – a progressive.  They seem an unlikely couple, but are drawn together during the crumbling of their worlds.

They flee their homeland and cling to each other in various refugee camps – the way to many of which are opened though magical doors that lead you to another part of the world – an odd but fascinating little aspect of this story that Hamid tells in such a commonplace way that you would expect the door to your spare bedroom to lead you to London too.  It leads to an interesting sense of dislocation for the characters – and allows for fascinating depictions of the inhabitants of those lands who are suddenly overrun by refugees.  Hamid has a sharp eye and while it’s clear he condemns those who would reject those who need it a place in their country, in his magical world even these strange intrusions are eventually forgiven and ways forward are found.  And surely if they can, we an ourselves?

A fascinating and thought-provoking read – definitely one for our times.

Book Review of Fever Dream

I always make it a point to read at least a few of the Booker-nominated titles each year.Fever-Dream-Samanta-Schweblin  The first was Judas by Amos Oz – not a book I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but Oz is such a beautiful writer I thought it was worth a look.

Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a very different kind of book.  A fast-paced novella, Fever Dream is a chilling mystery that is never fully solved.  This will alienate some readers straight away.  And even though I too was somewhat frustrated by the lack of resolution, Schweblin’s story is a hard one to put down.

The story begins in a darkened hospital room.  Amanda is near death, and telling her story to David, the enigmatic son of a neighbour.  David urges her to recount her last 24 hours to identify the exact time the ‘worms’ took over and caused her death.

In recounting her time in the Argentinian countryside Amanda ends up telling David about a conversation she has with Carla, David’s mother.  She is worried about David – ever since a psychic transmigrated his soul in order to save his life.  She calls this new David “a monster”.  Amanda is worried for her child Nina too.  Something is strange about this landscape, and she feels the “rescue distance” (the space between her and Nina that she feels is safe) is getting smaller and smaller.

David is a hard task-master, shaping and cutting off Amanda’s narrative, focused on getting to the story of the worms.  And something is definitely wrong here.  Schweblin’s all-pervading and lasting sense of foreboding is inescapable.

I doubt you’ll be able to put Fever Dream down.  I don’t know whether you’ll find it entirely satisfactory at the end, but you’ll be impatient to get there.

Book Review of Judas

JudasThere’s a lot to like about Judas, the 2017 Man Booker Prize nominated novel by Amos Oz.  An Israeli, Oz has exceptionally beautiful prose and seems to have mastered romantic longing in his stories.

This one if about Schmuel, a university student dedicated to the study if Jewish views of Christ – and that also if Judas, a largely demonised character in Christian mythology but not so much in historical record. But Schmuel’s life is upended when his parents announce they can no longer afford his school fees, and his girlfriend leaves him to marry her ex.

Schmuel quickly finds himself living as a companion to an old Jewish politician and his daughter-in-law, a sad and mysterious women who quickly he comes to dream about.

Its a book about foolish young hearts, unrequited love, intellectual curiosity, and the ostracising of the Jews for their failure to recognise Jesus as the messiah.  Some of this was deeply religious, and some political and much of it admittedly outside of my sphere of understanding.  And this did slow down my reading of what ultimately is a finely crafted story.

Book Review of His Bloody Project

his-bloody-projectI always try to read a couple of the Man Booker nominations each year – although I find I’m rarely sophisticated enough to agree with the winner. This year’s winner – The Sellout – drove me a little mad. I haven’t given up on it entirely, but certainly I’ve given up on it for now.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet was another matter. Subtitled Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, the novel is styled like true crime, but in reality is totally fictional. It’s a vivid portrait of life in a small Scottish croft in the years proceeding 1869, and the bloody murders that occurred and subsequently gripped the imagination of the wider public. Part portrait, part social commentary His Bloody Project is both intelligent and readable. The characters are engaging and well-realised, particularly the murderer Roddy Macrae, who is an interesting blend of intelligence and naievety. This makes his trial all the more interesting – is he a cold-blooded killer or someone not capable of making a rational decision? Worth a look – more accessible no doubt than some of the other nominees.

Book Review of Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day

selection-day-9781501150838_lgIt’s not very often that I would read – or enjoy – a novel that is ostensibly about cricket. But here I have. Aravind Adiga, who wowed us several years ago with The White Tiger and it’s complex portrayal of the caste system of India, turns his gaze on to India’s preoccupation with cricket in this, his third novel.

Two young boys – and cricket prodigies – have been raised by a single-minded father to pursue futures in cricket – a calling that will ensure a rise in class, wealth and status. Radha, the elder brother is already being courted by the junior cricket leagues, and his father ensures that the younger brother, Manjunath comes along as part of the package. Radha is everything Manju is not – tall, good-looking and popular with the girls. His skill seems unmatched by all except one of the other junior players, Javed Ansari.

While Javed should become their natural enemy in the competition, Manju befriends him and it is this friendship that introduces Manju to new ideas that will completely change the course of his life. Perhaps Manju has dreams that don’t involve cricket? Maybe he doesn’t have to give up his schooling and his love of science to become the next Tendulkar? Maybe there can be more to him than the only thing his father said anyone would ever care about? What if someone could love him for himself alone?

And while all this begins to resonate within Manjunath, his game changes too, and he begins to outshine his older brother….

A stunning novel about family, exploitation and the desire to become more than what one is, Selection Day is one of my favourite reads of 2016 to date. I now have Adiga’s second novel on my nightstand… thank goodness another one waits.

Book Review of The Noise of Time

Many people rave about Julian Barnes, and indeed winning a Mnoise_cape_150x225an Booker Prize tends to suggest you are brilliant at what you do. But I have at times struggled with his slow pacing and prose. At university I did not enjoy Flaubert’s Parrot, although a few years ago I did enjoy The Sense of an Ending, which admittedly I read on audio, which does tend to disguise or minimise pacing issues.

I was sent a review copy of his new novel – the first since the Booker – The Noise of Time. The concept is fascinating. Set his story in communist Russia, The Noise of Time is a painstaking fictional recreation of the life of real-life composer Dmitri Shostakovich, focussing specifically on the role of the political of the artists of the time.

Shostakovich was not ideological and resented the interference of the government on the lives of artists at the time. However, without political support, an artist was guaranteed obscurity and even in some cases, death. Shostakovich’s life is a series of compromises until he finally does not recognise the man riding around in a town car with political clout and overwhelming success. But it was a hard road, and many times Shostakovich feared for his life.

Despite these wonderful ideas and the human expression of the pressure to become part of the political propaganda machine, I found myself drifting off often during the novel, which failed to hold my interest in the way it really should have. This was hard work. But in the end, it was work worth doing. This is thoughtful and satisfying if you can make it to the end.